What do you remember about some of our recent presidential elections? It helps to understand why President Obama has chosen to escalate the war in Afghanistan recently.
Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter (1980) Carter's style as a no-nonsense president who was willing to say what the public did not want to hear made him look like a no-nonsense loser when put on a stage next to the optimistic Reagan in their only debate. One look at Carter's frequent frowns and Reagan's smiles told the story of the election just a week later.
George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis (1988) The constant showing of commercials about Willie Horton and Dukakis riding on a tank and news footage of the Democratic candidate hesitating in answering a hypothetical question about what he would do if someone raped and murdered his wife dominated the campaign.
Bob Dole vs. Bill Clinton (1996) In a campaign appearance, the seventy-two year old Dole tripped in front of a camera, which replayed his unfortunate slip over and over in clips on news shows. He tried to joke his way out of it but not even his famous wit could erase the image of a man too old to be president.
George W. Bush vs. Al Gore (2000) Gore dropped several points in the polls after replays of the first presidential debate caught him sighing in response to Bush's answers to questions. Then Saturday Night Live parodied Gore in subsequent debates as a man willing to change his personality to win an election. The accusation, despite its comedic form, stuck.
What about issues besides personality?
It depends on the nature of the issues. If it has to do with emotional issues such as abortion, the public heard much about differences of opinion between the main candidates. But what the public did not hear much about were ideas on the proper use of force:
President Carter lowered taxes and increased defense spending. He even withdrew SALT II, a weapons reduction treaty with the Soviet Union, from the Senate's consideration. Carter also secretly (and illegally) shipped weapons to the Afghans who were fighting the Soviet Union and sanctioned CIA intervention there. His successor, President Reagan, simply followed these policies.
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